Three Views of Theoderic

Three Views of Theoderic: Review of Sean Lafferty, Law and Society in the Age of Theoderic the Great: A study of the Edictum Theoderici (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); and Jonathan Arnold, Theoderic and the Roman Restoration (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Peter Heather, The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes & Imperial Pretenders (London: MacMillan, 2013).

On the one hand, Lafferty (from now on L) provides his reader with a traditional vision of Theoderican Italy as one of several post-Roman worlds. His Theoderic is a barbarian rex dressed in Roman clothing. L sees Theoderic’s as bit of a magician’s trick, heavy on rhetoric, but based on a much more humble and depressing reality. Despite the ancient rhetoric’s claims to the contrary, in L’s (20) mind, Theoderic was unable to solve most of Italy’s structural problems. L points out rightly that our major source for the reign, Cassiodorus’ Variae, “do not necessarily reflect conditions as they were”. Under the Goths, Italy was becoming increasingly militarized, which culminated with a merging of the civilian and military branches of the Italo-Roman government (101-102). L does find that in “Ostrogothic” Italy that “the integrity of the judicial system” was basically the same as in the Later Roman Empire. He concludes, however, that the Ostrogoths offered Italo-Romans and Goths a watered down version of Roman law and justice.  Ultimately, in L’s mind, Theoderic was a bit of a charlatan. While recognising Theoderic’s ability “to mask these problems behind a rhetoric of Roman renewal that stressed continuity between his reign and those of other great Emperors like Trajan or Valentinian.” L contends that “the ordinary citizen was worse off, unable to overcome the inherent biases that favoured the rich, the well-connected,” and the militarized Gothic elite.  While on paper things may not have changed much from when the Roman emperors wore the purple, L concludes that Theoderican Italy was hindered by a failure of “judges who were unable or unwilling to enforce the King’s laws”(155).

On the other hand, Jonathan Arnold is more inclined to take Italo-Roman writers like Ennodius and Cassiodorus at face value. Arnold (90) goes so far to say “Theoderic’s reign…constituted much more than simply that of a king along the same lines as Odovacer or other ‘barbarian’ kings of the West. He was a princeps Romanus, or Roman emperor, acknowledged as such by his own subjects and presented as such, though in a deferential and conciliatory manner, to the East.” The “glorious” opening decades of Theoderic’s rule were nothing less than the rebirth of the Western Roman Empire.[i]


Arnold, in my mind rightly, places much value on the martial reputation and military record of the Goths as a key factor in their acceptance as “new” Romans in the enfeebled West. He writes: “what separated the Goths from these (other Romanised peoples) was the fact that they remained proudly, perhaps even defiantly, unconquered by Rome”. Instead of being ruled by unmanly Greek emperors from the East like Anthemius (ruled 467-72), the effeminized fifth-century Italo-Romans had been both rescued and reinvigorated by the manly Goths, cast by men like Ennodius and Cassiodorus as “new” Romans draped in traditional Roman martial virtues. Arnold explains, “Contemporary western propaganda sought to paint the Gothic Ricimer as a noble Roman protector” whilst casting Easterners like the Western Roman Emperor Anthemius “as an enraged Galatian and Greekling rather than the Roman he claimed to be.” (153). “Goths and Gothicness”, he continues, “represented martialism, the old Roman virtue of virtus (the very source of the term virtue), which meant “manliness” or “courage.” Virtus was an ideal that the Romans had seemingly lost, becoming overly effeminate (perhaps even overly Greek), yet which until recently had been most Roman indeed”.


I would agree with Arnold that one can easily find this familiar trope concerning the unmanly and Greek identity of Eastern Romans in both Eastern and Western writers. Arnold makes it clear that this view of enervated Greeks and Western Romans are not his own views, but the ones found in the Italo-Roman sources. The mid sixth-century Byzantine writer Procopius spends much of his Gothic Wars trying to rebut this gendered propaganda. This does not mean that the majority of Italo-Romans saw Easterners like Anthemius as unmanly, only that they thought that men like Ricimer and Theoderic might want to hear such traditional tropes. As Procopius’ shows his readers throughout Wars the Italo-Romans often had mixed loyalties.[ii]

In chapters 5 and 6 Arnold expands on his idea found in chapter 1-4 that Theoderic “had literally become a new Augustus”. Arnold is certainly correct when he suggests that Roman “soldier-emperors were often unable to earn their more aristocratic subject’s respect or loyalty (142).” Arnold discusses how Romanitas (imperfectly translated as “Romanness” in English) had long consisted of a combination of martial and intellectual virtues. The Goth’s imperial virtues were not based solely on Theoderic’s ability to garb himself in martial virtues, but by his ability to demonstrate that during his service in the East he had mastered the more civilised qualities of an idealised Roman from the upper-classes.

The fact that the Goths remained the primary soldiers in Gothic Italy raises an interesting point.[iii] When describing Theoderic’s Italy, one thing that both Goths and Byzantines seem to agree on is that notion that the Italo-Romans lacked the manly courage and martial virtues to protect their native land.[iv] As the Goths become more attuned to Roman masculine ideals, the Italo-Romans become more effeminized. Roman aristocrats who had long been able to forego their martial roles for more intellectual forms of male self-fashioning increasingly had a difficult time being seen as “true” men in the increasingly militarized world of the late fifth and early sixth-century.[v] I would suggest that just as martial virtues were not enough to make Romans out of Goths, in writers like Procopius, intellectual virtues were no longer enough to make Romans out what he saw as enervated Italians.[vi]

Moreover, Procopius’ views of Italy and the major characters Gothic and Roman were not in as much dissonance with Western Sources as Arnold posits (e.g 73). Procopius’ character sketches of leading figures in the Gothic leadership such as Amalasuintha, Theodahad, Athalaric, and Totila appear very similar to accounts given in the Western sources.[vii] Indeed, much of what Procopius tells his readers about the Gothic Wars after 540 most likely came from his contacts within the Italian Senate.[viii]So too does there appear to be a continuing divide between Goths and Italo/Romans in the generation after Theoderic. If the Goths were truly “new” Romans more juxtaposition should be seen. Arnold does not address adequately the notion found in Wars that the Goths continued to live mostly amongst themselves in Northern Italy and that at least some within the Gothic hierarchy after Theoderic’s death resited the inevitable decline of Gothic cultural values that resulted from them being gradually absorbed by the Italo-Romans.[ix]

Moreover, abandoning his and his peoples’ Arianism would have been an easy step in being accepted as true Romans. In the East, the Alan generalissimo Aspar— albeit grudgingly— coaxed his son convert to orthodoxy in order to marry the Emperor Leo’s daughter in 470 to be better accepted… why not Theoderic? Religious conviction seems unlikely, indeed, as one scholar on Theoderic’s reign notes, “there was a steady flow of from Arianism to Catholicism among the Ostrogoths in Italy.”[x] Gothic identity and the need to maintain the continuing loyalty of the Gothic warriors that truly kept him in power seems the most likely reason that this step was never taken by Theoderic.[xi]

Arnold’s contention that years of service by the Goths within the armies of Rome and subsequent integration into Roman society would have made it difficult for one to distinguish the fifth and sixth-century Roman from the non-Roman certainly makes sense. The question that might be asked, and in my view Arnold never tackles satisfactorily, is why did these men in some cases seem to hang on to their Gothic and/ or Alan identities so vigorously. Was this perhaps, not a sign of non-acceptance by Romans, but a personal choice? Put more simply, why would you keep calling yourself a Goth and/or Alan, if you truly wanted to be seen as Roman?  For example, when Arnold discusses (146) Aspar’s son Patricius’ Romanised name as an indication of the generalissimo’s hopes to integrate him more firmly into Eastern Roman society, he also mentions that the generalissimo’s two other sons had been given un-Roman names of Ardabur and Hermineric since they were expected to “follow in his footsteps” as military men.  His assumption behind these names is likely correct, but what Arnold does not explore here, or indeed in his account of Theoderic, is why non-Romans like Aspar and Theoderic, even after years under the umbrella of Roman culture, appear to have wanted to maintain their non-Roman identity and culture.[xii] Though hinted at, Arnold does not consider the ramifications that such dedication to their sense of Gothicness might have on his larger arguments.

Arnold’s tactic instead, is to focus on the diverse cultural traits the individual peoples like the Gauls had preserved during their long tenure under Roman rule. In chapter five, he offers an adjustment to his previous story of a largely gentle merging between two martial peoples. Arnold writes:

The very nature of the Empire aided in the acceptability of such diversity, its existence an inevitable consequence of the assimilation process that radiated outward from the Roman core to its periphery (and back again). The Roman world was a heterogeneous composition of numerous ethnic and subethnic groups all of which had adopted various Roman cultural aspects to differing degrees and over different amounts of time thus becoming “Roman”, but with diverse manifestations that were constantly in flux (122).[xiii]

He resumes by suggesting that many Romans, and by this he means Italian elites, never fully accepted peoples like the Gauls as “true” Romans and, indeed, continued to view them in some cases as barbarians.

Fine so far, his next assertion and analogy, however, is more problematic. Arnold continues, “Gallo-Roman culture was still in flux….Gallo-Roman culture was still readily identifiable to outsiders as different or even bizarre, and to some degree Gallic society really did retain certain Celtic attributes (122)”. Okay, this is true to a degree, indeed, in his writings, the fourth-century Emperor Julian described the Celts and Germans as “fierce and warlike”, but “unruly”, “easterners” like the Syrians as “intelligent and effeminate”, North Africans as “argumentative”, and Greeks[xiv] and Romans as “warlike and intelligent”, all of which may seem a bit strange for some modern readers since almost all of these peoples were now Romans.[xv] Anthony Kaldellis, I believe correctly, sees these not so much as ethnic, but as regional stereotypes: a bit like some Americans seeing southerners as a bit dim-witted.[xvi]

Arnold concludes that these regional stereotypes help to explain why the Goths could “retain certain native characteristics, and still become Roman” (123). While I agree with this conclusion, the analogy he makes between Gauls and Goths is not apt. The Gauls had been part of the Empire for over five hundred years, and indeed, as Arnold later mentions, were a people from a non-Roman homeland who had been conquered by the Romans, whilst the Goths were recent arrivals, who had never been subjugated and were busy carving out territories within the Empire. This to me is a major difference.

The ethnic tropes discussed above are old standbys in Roman literature, but one needs to be careful to accept them as accurately reflecting contemporary views. Much opposing evidence could be gathered to prove that the Gauls were seen as primarily Roman.

Arnold knows this, and he does a good job of warning his audience once again, but he still makes the tenuous claim. Why? I would suggest that it is because he needs to explain away evidence that is rife in fifth and sixth-century literature depicting the Goths as typical barbarians.[xvii] My hesitance to accept his methods does not mean that I do not accept his main argument that the Goths—or at least certain peoples and individuals who called themselves Goths— were gradually being amalgamated into the Empire in the fifth century, and could be seen as Roman in the sixth century. What remains less clear, however, is how much of the Goths’ Romanization was voluntary or the inevitable result of a relatively small social group being gradually absorbed by the dominant culture.[xviii]

Despite my concerns with some of A’s more sweeping statements, his study is much more thorough and interesting for both the novice and the expert than L’s work that is based largely on a tenuous source. Indeed, despite L’s claims, whether Theoderic even composed the Edictum is not clear, or accepted by specialists who see it as a much later product. It is a bit strange given the two scholars’ familiarity and similar topic that they do not engage one another’s disparate views of Theoderic’s Italy. Perhaps like mixing matter and anti-matter, neither work would have survived the confrontation!

Peter Heather’s new book Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes & Imperial Pretenders is the sequel to his popular Fall of Rome (2005). While aimed at a broad audience, Heather also has many titbits and, indeed, sometimes startling conclusions for academics. Heather engages with many on-going disputes in the field of Late Antique history. The study, however, would have benefitted with further engagement with recent scholarship that contradicts many of his main points. His bibliography is missing many important articles and recent works that are fundamental if one hopes to put together a narrative on the poorly covered fifth century. While sections of this book are interesting, particularly his chapters on the two Theoderics and Justinian’s “reconquest” of the “lost” western provinces in the sixth-century, as a whole this is the weakest of Heather’s trilogy. Indeed, as he move away from his area of expertise the quality declines dramatically. His chapters on Carolingians and the rise of the papacy are convoluted and often unrelated to his main thesis. I will, however, leave my comments to his opening chapters on Theoderic’s rise and Justinian’s wars of reconquest.

While recognizing that he was aiming at a larger audience, his Theoderic offers a portrait of a stereotypical barbarian rex that could have been found in something published a century earlier. With some exceptions, H’s narrative falls back on the old ethnic divide of “Romans versus barbarians” as an explanation to the political turmoil that beset Leo’s and Zeno’s regimes (though H claims that he follows the newer consensus that depicts these divisions as largely factional disputes). Moreover, he makes no mention of Croke and Wood’s recent articles arguing that Leo and Zeno, indeed, may have been very similar to men like Ricimer, and the two Theoderics. His Theoderic educated in Constantinople had two choices once free from Leo’s captivity: mildly submit to Roman cultural superiority, or “smash” for himself and his people a place in this world; certainly this is a vision of Theoderic and the Goths that our Byzantine sources would have wanted us to believe. Arnold suggests plausibly that Theoderic had been shaped by those early years in Constantinople. He was, indeed, probably much more of a typical upper-class Eastern Roman than the Eastern Emperor, Zeno, who sent him to overthrow Odovacer. His study represents a very bipolar world of Romans against barbarians, a paradigm that has been demolished by many scholars in the past ten years.  Heather does however provide the reader with a lucid and fast-flowing narrative on the scheming that marked late fifth-century Eastern Roman politics. Following Jonathan Arnold, I would just argue that Theoderic and Leo would have shared many values and hopes for the Empire. Certainly, Theoderics move into Italy and subsequent reign is much more nuanced than H’s work suggests.

H’s views on Cassiodorus and other Italo-Romans having “to justify to the New Eastern Roman ruler of Italy why they had continued to serve Gothic kings despite their arrival on Italian soil” (55) is puzzling in light of the fact that he showed throughout his study that such propaganda had begun as soon as Theoderic arrived in Italy. His idea that as a consequence of an Eastern Roman victory, Cassiodorus gave his writings a quick rewrite and culling of his letters to ingratiate himself to Justinian and his inner-circle is unconvincing.[xix] Indeed, as Arnold relates, Cassiodorus remained loyal up until Vitigis was captured and sent to Constantinople in 540. So too has Arnold shown in his writings that Cassiodorus was only one of many Italo-Roman writers who composed works dedicated to depicting Theoderic and his Goths as the manly saviours of Italy.

Ethnic identity in Late Antiquity appears to have been much more fluid than Heather frequently suggests.[xx] I found some of his comments on Gothic identity incongruent. He posits, plausibly enough, that “the lower-status (Gothic) warriors and even more the slaves had much less of a stake in their group’s existence, so that the strength of individual affiliation to the group’s identity fell off dramatically as you moved down the scale.” However, he uses Theoderic’s famous “Romanus miser” quote to back up this suggestion. Certainly this example argues the opposite. Rich Goths—one would think including many high-ranking warriors,—in this passage imitate rich Romans.

The emperor Justinian (ruled 527-565) has received a great deal bad press in the past two decades. Where the older historiographical tradition mostly praised him for his reconquest of the lost provinces in the West, law code, and his example as an engaged Christian emperor, revisionist scholars have lately condemned him as a megalomaniac Christian despot.[xxi] Heather’s work reflects this more negative view; though thankfully he does not blame the rise of the Arabs in the seventh century on Justinian’s failed policies. Heather (203) goes so far as to describe the emperor as an “autocratic bastard of the worst kind.” Heather compares Justinian to the twentieth century’s most infamous murders Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot. Even Procopius, who composed his Secret History in attempt to undermine Justinian’s legacy, might be surprised that such a negative description of an emperor has largely taken hold in modern scholarship. While I recognise that Heather’s emotive prose is designed to appeal to a less academic audience, this is only one instance of many where H’s hyperbole undermines his duty as a historian. I also doubt that Procopius merely hoped for the Secret History to be comical.

So if you only have time to read one new book on Theoderic this year, make it Roman Restoration. I would, however, keep John Moorhead’s less sensational—but in places more sound and thorough— 1992 tome on Theoderic (Theoderic in Italy)  by my side to check and compare some of the more sweeping assertions. Heather’s chapters on Theoderic and Procopius can also provide the usually accepted alternative views to be found largely in A’s extensive footnotes. Indeed, Arnold’s footnotes are detailed and packed with interesting information that engages with much current scholarship. Here he also ably translates and interacts with the difficult Latin texts of Ennodius and other Italo-Roman sources. Therefore his interpretations remain mostly his own and are not reliant on other scholars’ viewpoints.

As R.I. Moore rightly comments, studies on a big subject are always prone to oversimplification.[xxii] Every chapter in Arnold’s investigation gave me new insights—even where I disagreed. His reanalysis and fresh readings of the evidence surrounding Theoderic is thorough and engaging.  It is the best and ultimately most important of the three books reviewed above.

In closing, Arnold makes the wise point that our view of the period is often crafted by both ancient and modern historians who knew that Theoderic’s bold experiment had failed. As he points out both mid-sixth century historians Procopius and Jordanes offer us an Eastern viewpoint after Justinian’s reconquest had driven the Goths to near extinction. Seen from the vantage of 511 Rome, Theoderic’s regime may have offered much hope for Italo-Romans seeking to restore the military prowess and renown of ancient Rome.





[i] Other scholars have accepted that some Italo-Romans saw Theoderic as a new Western emperor, but suggest that Theoderic remained wary of taking such a step. See e.g. John Moorhead (Theoderic in Italy [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992, 49]) who writes: “Despite the degrees to which some of his subjects were prepared to assimilate Theoderic into the category of emperor, for official purposes he remained cautious.”


[ii] A discussion of these mixed loyalties is found in Maria Kouroumali, “The Justianic Reconquest of Italy: Imperial Campaigns and Local Responses,” in War and Warfare in Late Antiquity, 2 vols (Brill, 2013), 970-71. Cf. with John Moorhead’s assertion (Theoderic in Italy, 111) that during Justinian’s reconquest most Italo-Romans “supported the armies of the Byzantines.”

[iii] On the primary role that the Goths played within Theoderic’s armies, and a discussion of the limited participation of Italians in these forces, see Moorhead, Theoderic in Italy, 71-75.


[iv] Procopius, Wars 3.3.10-13, 7.11.12-14.


[v] The increased militarization of Romanitas from the fourth century is discussed in Andy Merrills and Richard Miles, The Vandals (Oxford: Blackwell, 2014), 88-93.


[vi] For the increased militarization of sixth-century Byzantine culture as represented in writers like Procopius, see Conor Whately, “Militarization, or the Rise of a Distinct Military Culture? The East Roman Elite in the 6th Century AD”, in: Stephen O’Brien and Daniel Boatright, eds. Warfare and Society in the Ancient Mediterranean: Papers arising from a colloquium held at the University of Liverpool, 13th June 2008. (Oxford, 2013), 49-57.


[vii] E.g. the similar descriptions of Amalasuintha’s adulation of classical learning found in Cassiodorus, Variae 10.3.4; Procopius, Wars 5.2.11-17. Her “manliness” is extolled by both authors as well; Athalaric’s alcoholism discussed by Procopius is hinted at by Cassiodorus. The Goths seizures of Italian lands is discussed by Cass. Variae 8.29 and Proc. Wars 5.3.1. Totila’s restraint and “fatherly” treatment of the citizens of Rome: 7.8.12-25, and the Liber Pontificalis 61.7. In fact the entire episode found in Cassiodorus and discussed by Arnold (50-51) concerning the Western Emperor Valentinian III’s unmanly education at the hands of his mother Placida as a primary cause for the fifth-century Western Empire’s troubles is found in Procopius Wars 3.3.9-14. There are many more congruencies that could be added.


[viii] J.A.S. Evans, Procopius (New York: Twayne, 1972), 31-36.


[ix]Procopius, Wars 5.2.11-17. For a discussion of the creation of separate Gothic communities outside of Rome and Ravenna, see Moorhead, Theoderic in Italy, 112. On the other hand, Moorhead (84-87) also discusses the inevitable Romanization of some Goths through intermarriage primarily with wealthy Italo-Roman women.


[x] Moorhead, Theoderic in Italy, 95.


[xi] I do recognise, however, that there did not appear to be too much friction between Arians and Catholics in Theoderic’s Italy.


[xii] Aspar’s father had served in the Roman army and Aspar was the senior senator in East Roman at the time of his assassination in 471, having served the Roman state for nearly fifty years.


[xiii] Romans, like the Augustan geographer, Strabo (63/64 BC – ca. AD 24), had long stressed that barbarism was an escapable condition., in his writings he showed that by bringing good government and civilisation to barbarian peoples, Roman imperialism could overcome  some of the environmental and social factors that had contributed to these non-Roman peoples’ “savage” personalities. For the views of Strabo, see Michael Maas, “Strabo and Procopius,” in From Rome to Constantinople: Studies in Honour of Averil Cameron, ed. Hagit Amirav and Bas ter Haar Romney (Leuven: Peeters, 2007), 71-75.



[xiv] Julian here used the rather imprecise term Ελληνας.  As Anthony Kaldellis shows (Hellenism in Byzantium, 184-187), “Hellenes” is a problematic word, in that by the fourth-century CE it could be used to describe a variety of things: firstly, it could be used to describe “pagans” or all non-Christian peoples including barbarian peoples as well as the ancient Greeks. Secondly, it might suggest any contemporary Romans who lived in the province of Hellas. Thirdly, it was utilised as a term for anyone who spoke Greek regardless of ethnicity. Fourthly, it could depict anyone, regardless of ethnicity, who had mastered the Classical paideia.  Finally, it could be used in the same way that Julian does in the passage above to describe the ancient Greeks, a “national” identity that by Julian’s time no longer existed.


[xv] Julian, Against the Galileans (trans. Wilmer C. Wright, Loeb Classical Library, 3 vols.[Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1923, reprint 2003]) 116 A. On the Celts’ fierceness in comparison to the Romans, see Julian, Misopogon 359 B. Julian amalgamated both environmental and social reasoning for the Eastern and Southern barbarians’ propensity to have effeminate and unwarlike natures. In 138 B He maintained that all nations “who possess and are contented with despotic governments” tended to be by nature “mild” (tiqasός) and “submissive” (ceiroήqhς).


[xvi] Kaldellis, Hellenism in Byzantium, 82-84.


[xvii] For some Italo-Romans’ continuing perceptions of the Goths as barbarians in Theoderic’s Italy, see Moorhead, Theoderic in Italy, 83.


[xviii] Full discussion in Moorhead, Theoderic in Italy, 100-104.


[xix] Heather’s viewpoint represents a modified version of M. Shane Bjornlie’s controversial revisionist thesis (Politics and Tradition Between Rome, Ravenna and Constantinople [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013] that the Variae had been composed in the 540s, not in 537/8 as commonly believed. Bjornlie contends, in contrast, that they were aimed at Roman aristocrats opposed to Justinian’s regime.


[xx] A good summary of these disputes and Heather stand on these issues is found in Andrew Gillett, “Ethnogenesis: A Contested Model of Early Medieval Europe,” History Compass 4 (2006): 1-20. For a more emotive (and indeed unabashedly hostile) synopsis of the main issues surrounding the dispute between these two schools may be found in the preface of Walter Goffart, The Narrators of Barbarian History A.D. 550-800: Jordanes, Gregory of Tours, Bede, and Paul the Deacon (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988, reprint 2005), xii-xvi.


[xxi] See e.g., James O’Donnell, The Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History (New York: Harper, 2008).


[xxii] R.I. Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society, 2nd ed (London: Blackwell 2007), 196


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